ACE considers healthy organizational culture to be a critical aspect of successful and effective charities. When we evaluate charities each year, this consideration informs our assessment of whether a charity has a healthy culture and a sustainable structure. In the past, we have written about the importance of healthy organizational culture and our methods for identifying charities with healthy cultures; we also posted a roundtable with advice for promoting healthy cultures.
In this part of the series, we ask advocates and experts at partially and fully distributed organizations to discuss the indicators of healthy remote teams and to offer their advice for maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
The following people contributed to this post:
- Stephanie Frankle, Culture and Engagement Specialist at The Humane League
- Julia Wise, Community Liaison at Centre for Effective Altruism
- Antonia Vitale, International Director of Operations at Animal Equality
- Baxter Bullock, Executive Director at Rethink Charity
- Leah Edgerton, Executive Director at Animal Charity Evaluators (previously Strategy and Internationalization Manager at ProVeg International)
We think that each of our contributors brings a unique perspective to the topic of remote organizational culture. For example, Frankle has been part of The Humane League (THL) for five and a half years and has supported and maintained THL’s fully-remote culture as they have grown in size from a staff of 10 to about 100. Wise’s work is informed by her background in social work; she is now part of a small remote Community Health team as a point person for the effective altruism (EA) community where she helps local and online groups support their members. Vitale supports employees and coordinates culture across Animal Equality’s unique organizational structure with networked offices and several remote employees in seven countries. Bullock directs Rethink Charity’s fully-remote team based in Vancouver; he has also managed his team while working remotely from Colombia. Finally, ACE’s own Executive Director Leah Edgerton shares her perspective from working at ProVeg where she ran a partially-remote team from the Berlin office, as well as her current experience managing ACE’s entirely remote team.
Please feel free to discuss our contributors’ thoughts—and to share your own—in the comments!
Culture and Engagement Specialist, The Humane League
Stephanie Frankle is the Culture and Engagement Specialist of The Humane League. Frankle has been at The Humane League for five and a half years now and has helped THL’s culture adjust to the growth of their fully-remote team from ten to almost one hundred staff members. She started in direct outreach doing grassroots organizing for two and a half years before she began overseeing THL’s campus outreach program. She then created her new role of Culture and Engagement Specialist by proposing it to her manager and writing her own job description.
Check in, take time off, and lead by example
We do a well-being check-in once a month with managers and their direct reports to make sure they’re taking time off and that they feel able to take the time off they need. We encourage people to utilize the unlimited PTO policy, which includes a minimum requirement of at least five consecutive days off at least once a year. Unless you’re fully unplugging for at least a week, you’re not really ever stepping away from your work. To try to make it easy for people to take time off and fully unplug while they’re off work, we made a going-on-leave checklist so that people can leave knowing they checked all the boxes and don’t have to still be thinking about work while they’re on vacation.
To lead by example, we also remind our managers and our leadership team not to be posting on Slack at 10 p.m., not to reply to emails on the weekends, and to let staff know when they’re unavailable. Lots of folks on staff have told me how impactful it is to hear that leadership take breaks during the day and to see them take long stretches of time off, saying that it helps them feel permission to do so as well.
Solicit feedback and track progress with survey data
We try to provide a lot of opportunities for people to give open and honest feedback. We do big-picture feedback twice a year with our employee engagement survey. We ask questions about feeling supported, valued, engaged, having room for growth, and employee satisfaction. We also ask whether or not they would recommend working with their manager and at THL, as well as whether or not they see themselves staying on the team for the long term.
We also do performance reviews, peer reviews, and manager reviews. We do a lot of other surveys throughout the year—after every all-staff call, after the retreat, and after different initiatives. By soliciting feedback, we get more information about how things are going and know where we need more support. Getting as much feedback as possible gives us a lot of data so that we can track our progress throughout the year.
Honest feedback is a sign of good culture
A sign of a healthy remote team is whether or not we’re getting honest feedback. I think it’s a good sign if people feel safe sharing their name even when it’s optional in surveys. Also, people giving feedback in direct conversations is a sign of a really strong culture. This may involve voicing dissenting opinions or concerns, either to their manager, HR, or leadership.
If there’s a team that isn’t working together as well as it could be, I’d recommend identifying what specific areas are issues, where there is conflict happening, and where the communication is falling apart. The more we know what the specific issues are, the more we can do to resolve them. Then from there, I’d recommend getting advice from other teams that are doing better—for example, a team struggling with communication could ask for coaching from another manager whose team is succeeding in that area.
Community Liaison, Centre for Effective Altruism
Julia Wise is the Community Liaison at the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) and works in Boston, Massachusetts. Julia is also the President of Giving What We Can and the author of the blog Giving Gladly. Wise’s training is in sociology and social work, and she previously spent three years as a mental health worker.
Separate workspace from living space and track time
For me, not working from my bedroom was key to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I found that spending 16 hours a day within the same four-foot space wasn’t healthy. It works well for some people, but for me, it felt trapping to feel like so much of my life was happening in this one tiny physical area. So, we converted part of our hallway into an office for me and that has been much better, especially without the extra distractions.
I think if I were working in an office and it was clear to everyone when I was at work and when I wasn’t, I wouldn’t worry about tracking hours. However, since I work remotely, using Toggl to track the number of hours I work helps me know how I split my time between my job and other things I’m doing around the house. Based on this, I can decide to put in extra time on an evening or weekend or I can decide to take some time off during the standard workweek if I’ve worked a lot of hours.
I don’t think maintaining diligence and personal accountability is a problem specific to remote teams. All humans struggle with staying diligent. There’s no shame in setting up mechanisms to help you do what you want to do.
Be proactive and focus on good communication
A core trait in our remote workplace is about being proactive and noticing what things need to get done. You should at least stay in contact with the people around you and figure out who it makes sense to do tasks when they come up. Being able to manage your time without someone looking over your shoulder is important, and this is especially true in a remote workplace where there’s no daily contact.
Being a good communicator and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt are especially useful qualities in remote work. I think it’s easier to misunderstand each other over text than it is in person, but there are ways to mitigate this. For example, I have a co-worker who always explains his intentions when he asks a question. That’s because when you’re communicating via text, a simple question like “Why do you need this?” could be misinterpreted. When you can’t hear the tone of someone’s voice and you don’t know what’s going on with them that day, you could read a message they send in a lot of different ways.
Support each other
One indicator of things going well on a remote team is when people feel like they know what everyone is up to. Another indicator is when people know who to ask when they have questions. A sense of working together on a common goal, even if you’re doing different types of work, is also a strong indicator.
On the other hand, an issue with a remote team might be that some of the team members don’t know who to talk to in order to find out what’s going on. CEA has a channel called “no dumb questions” where you can ask any question and write anything you’re unsure about.
I think people feeling isolated and that they can’t communicate about their worries would be other indicators of a problem. When something is affecting me and I’m not feeling well, it’s much more apparent at an in-person workplace—it can be harder to make others aware in a remote culture. That can further a feeling of isolation, especially if you don’t feel like you can talk to people casually about things that are affecting you.
To address this, we have a “support penguin” icon that we use on Slack. Using the penguin as a status means you’re having a tough day. People can offer you extra support or just be aware that you aren’t feeling well. We also have a channel that’s called “support penguin,” where you can post when things are not going well, and people can be there for you or give advice. A few of us check in once a week on different Slack channels to talk about how things in our lives are going, be it work life or personal life. Even though we live in different cities and can’t get together in person after work, it’s been really nice to know that I have co-workers who know what’s going on in my life.
International Director of Operations at Animal Equality
Antonia Vitale is the International Director of Operations of Animal Equality. Previously, Vitale worked in marketing and advertising as the Head of Employee Experience at Archrival, before which she was the Head of People and Culture at Wolff Olins.
Respect working hours and encourage time off when needed
Generally, I think that we respect people’s work hours and time zones and that we impress that upon our employees. We ask everyone to set themselves to “away” or “busy” on Zoom and we try to respect that by not messaging them when they have that status unless of course, something is urgent. Compared to most of the for-profit companies I’ve worked at, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how few emails come through on the weekends; when they do, they often come with the caveat of “no need to reply over the weekend.”
We actively encourage employees to take time off when they need it. We allow for flexible working hours as needed, especially with remote employees. We also have a shared vacation and travel calendar that everybody in the entire organization uses, so we know not to reach out to people when they’re out of office.
Communicate openly and directly
A common symptom of a remote team having problems is communication breakdowns. One of the biggest challenges with working remotely is that you can’t just talk to someone directly about an issue, so you have to send it through Zoom or an email. I always say that text doesn’t have tone, and while that is true for the most part, we all do add that tone to some extent. For example, you can get an email that’s to the point, and it might come across as rude. You might think that this person is being short with you, but actually, they may be just answering your question. I think that’s one of the ways in which you can see that the remote culture might not be working: when there’s a breakdown of trust because of a breakdown of communication.
When these problems arise, the best way to resolve the situation is usually by speaking to someone about it. We intentionally ask that colleagues speak with one another directly whenever possible. We also use a decision-making model called RASCI (Responsible Accountable Support Consulted Informed) which really helps to clear up any confusion that might be a result of a communication breakdown related to a person’s responsibility.
Executive Director of Operations, Rethink Charity
Baxter Bullock is the Executive Director of Rethink Charity, where the entire team is fully remote. He is the Co-Founder of RC Forward and Students for High Impact Charity. Before working at Rethink Charity, Baxter served as the Programs Director for the Charity Science Foundation. He was also a high school math teacher for four years.
Take time off and adjust routines for work-life balance
We have a big element of our culture where we joke with each other about not working too hard. We have a scheduling channel where people can inform others when they’re taking a day off and they won’t be available. There is a huge amount of positive reinforcement from the entire team; people will respond encouraging others to take time off, to enjoy, and to not check their messages. In addition, we informally have emergency routes of contact in place so that a person can feel comfortable turning off notifications on their phone so that they don’t get emails and Slack notifications. We really encourage that.
I just got back from a few months in Medellín, Colombia, which is sort of the digital nomad capital of South America. I found it a very good experience spending two to three months in a different environment, changing up my routine and allowing myself that freedom and adventure along with the standard work routine. Also, since I’ve been back in Vancouver I’ve joined a coworking space. It gives me that feeling of working alongside people, even though we’re not all working on the same thing. I would like to do more to encourage people to create those work environments that are better for their mental health.
Use Slack interaction as a litmus test for engagement
A sign of us really connecting as an organization is seeing tons of interaction on Slack channels, both work-related and not work-related. A symptom of our team not really meshing well is when channels—especially the social ones—go quiet. This is totally unscientific, but there’s a vibe that comes across in the tone of responses that people have and the way that people are writing on Slack. It’s similar to going into an office and noticing that no one is talking and that there’s a gloomy atmosphere. I think you can see those similar tendencies or feel those similar vibes and atmospheres digitally and remotely as well. Leading by example is probably the best method I have to encourage team engagement. I find that when I make an effort to engage on Slack, it tends to foster an engaging environment among the whole team.
Executive Director, Animal Charity Evaluators (previously Strategy and Internationalization Manager, ProVeg International)
Leah Edgerton has been the Executive Director of Animal Charity Evaluators since February of 2019. Before entering this role, Edgerton was the Strategy and Internationalization Manager at ProVeg International, where she developed and managed ProVeg’s China Program. Previously, from 2015–2017, Edgerton was part of ACE’s communications team—first as a Communications Intern and then as Digital Media Manager.
Set realistic goals, take time for self-care, and engage in non-work topics
There are certain things that we all know are important to maintaining a healthy work-life balance: having good hobbies, not working too many hours, and having important relationships outside of work. I think in order to achieve that, whether for remote or in-person employees, it’s very important for managers and leaders to set realistic goals that don’t overwork people and don’t compromise people’s ability to prioritize these things.
At ACE, we offer a monthly allotment of self-care time, which people can use to improve their well-being in whatever way they see fit. We also have “skill shares” and presentations after our staff meetings. We use these to improve quality of life by sharing knowledge on topics such as healthy work styles, healthy lifestyles, how to sleep better, and productivity. We also encourage colleagues to engage with each other about topics that are important to their lives outside of work.
Check in often and keep remote employees in the loop
At ACE, we joke that we can tell when things are tense when our Slack channels get quieter, with not as much chatting. During our meetings, we also notice how much feedback there is going back and forth. Those are casual metrics that we can use, but of course, they’re not always accurate. I also have monthly one-on-ones with everyone, where I check in deliberately to ask how people are feeling at work and give them a chance to talk through a few things without a structured agenda. I ask what’s working well for them, how I or the organization can better support them, and what needs they have that aren’t currently being addressed to make sure that things don’t build up.
At ProVeg, we made a strong, deliberate effort to constantly make sure that when we had work-related conversations in the office, we always looped in the person who was remote so that they could participate. We often had calls where one person was on speakerphone or a video conference in our meeting rooms so we could have a mix of in-person and remote people in the meeting. Deliberate check-ins to ask how the remote employees are doing was a good way to gauge whether remote employees felt included or not.